Commissioned for the Wharton Center for Performing Arts at Michigan State University, Dr. Billy Taylor's Urban Griot is a storyteller's work. Playing the role of an urban griot, Taylor, along with drummer Winard Harper and bassist Chip Jackson, tries to relate to us the history of jazz. Covering that much territory in 54 minutes is impossible, but Taylor does what he can with a well-played mix of dance numbers ("Local Color/Can You Dig It"), Cuban textures ("Gracias Chucho"), waltzes ("Reclamation") and blues ("A Duke-ish Blues").
I'll be damned if Taylor isn't hiding a third hand inside one of his suit sleeves. His playing on "Invention/Looking For Another Theme" makes me wonder what Leo Kottke would sound like on piano. Harper and Jackson provide solid rhythm throughout.
Taylor does slip a bit when a spoken-word dedication to a lost son comes out like an awkward public-service announcement and breaks the vibe. The wistful piece that follows, "In Loving Memory," would have been just as effective without the sermonizing.
His experience as an educator may qualify Taylor as a griot, but I'm not sold on the urban part. Most of these tunes, however well played, are what I'd expect to hear in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood bar. Light, lyrical and safe. Suburban griot, maybe?